January 19, 2018

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Winnipeg Jets (26 – 13 – 7)

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Opinion

Plenty of bumps in the road, but it's home, spectacular home for Jets

John Woods / The Canadian Press</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) is assisted off the ice during the second period. The team's No. 1 centre will be out six to eight weeks with an upper body injury.</p>

John Woods / The Canadian Press

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) is assisted off the ice during the second period. The team's No. 1 centre will be out six to eight weeks with an upper body injury.

Everyone agrees home teams have an advantage in pro sports, with studies suggesting something in the area of a six per cent edge in NHL hockey all the way up to almost 20 per cent in MLS soccer.

What no one can agree on, however, is why.

Some people think it’s as simple as the crowd; there have been studies to support the idea that athletes get a psychological lift from cheering and can be deflated — but also motivated — by jeering.

Some people think it’s "home cooking" — a catch-all term to describe the comfort level we all experience when we’re in familiar surroundings.

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Everyone agrees home teams have an advantage in pro sports, with studies suggesting something in the area of a six per cent edge in NHL hockey all the way up to almost 20 per cent in MLS soccer.

What no one can agree on, however, is why.

Some people think it’s as simple as the crowd; there have been studies to support the idea that athletes get a psychological lift from cheering and can be deflated — but also motivated — by jeering.

Some people think it’s "home cooking" — a catch-all term to describe the comfort level we all experience when we’re in familiar surroundings.

And then there is the idea that home teams get the benefit of the doubt from referees, who studies have suggested are influenced — mostly subconsciously — to favour the home side.

But whatever the underlying reasons, what is not up for debate is that the Winnipeg Jets are enjoying a monstrous home-ice advantage right now.

A Jets team that has won just eight of 21 games on the road thus far improved to an eye-popping 13-3-1 at home Wednesday night with a 4-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers.

It was Winnipeg’s 12th win at home in their last 14 games. Throw in a shootout loss at home in that run and the Jets have collected 25 of a possible 28 points at home since mid-October.

You want to know what this team’s greatest strength is? It’s not the forwards, the deep well of young talent or goaltending. It's the 41 games the Jets will have played at Bell MTS Place when the regular season draws to a close.

Only two other teams in the NHL — the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and the apparition that is the Las Vegas Golden Knights — are converting home games into points on a more efficient basis than the Jets right now.

So what is it about these 2017-18 Jets that they are suddenly so dominating at home, even while continuing to limp through their road schedule?

The cheering helps, for sure, and Jets fans are a special breed. It was minus -26 C outside when the puck dropped Wednesday night in a game that was being broadcast on TV, in HD for those with Sportsnet in their cable lineup.

In any other city in the NHL, there’d have been empty seats. In Winnipeg, the building was full to the rafters long before Stacey Nattrass belted out the first note.

A fan base that has never wavered through thick and mostly thin is finally being rewarded for its loyalty with a team as good on the ice as the fans have been off it, and Jets Nation is lapping up every minute of it.

Yes, Winnipeg has the smallest building in the NHL, but on nights like Wednesday when the fans and the team are both fully engaged, it feels like an asset rather than a weakness.

It was loud, deafeningly loud, as it became clear Wednesday that it was the Jets rather than the red-hot Oilers — riding a four-game winning streak — who were the better team on this night.

And then it was silent, deathly silent, midway through the second period when Mark Scheifele went down. A crowd that is as knowledgeable as any in hockey instantly recognized this was something more than a player getting shaken up.

And so, what had until that point been a raucous post-Christmas party turned to deep concern, for the player and for the team, as Scheifele was helped from the ice. By Thursday afternoon, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed with the announcement that the team's No. 1 centre will be out six to eight weeks with an upper body injury that looked a lot like his right shoulder Wednesday night.

It’s a problem, a big problem, when your top-line centre goes down, especially when it happens with a couple of your defencemen — Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom — already out of the lineup with injuries.

But Scheifele's injury is also a moment for this franchise to once again showcase all the young talent we’ve heard so much about the last few years. It is a rare team that could have a Top 15 scorer in the NHL such as Scheifele go down and be able to respond, if the coaches and front office eventually choose, by calling up the second-best scorer in the AHL, Jack Roslovic.

And it’s also a rare team that could lose a player such as Scheifele in a one-goal game and still hang on to beat what was one of the hottest teams in the league heading into Christmas.

Keep calm, carry on and keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing at home this season — it’s a mantra as good as any.

So again, what is this magic elixir that has turned Portage and Donald into one of the most feared places to visit in all of the NHL?

Home cooking? Your own pillow feels as good in Winnipeg as it does anywhere else, I suppose.

And then there’s the officiating. For all the complaining fans do about the referees — and possibly, to some extent, because of it — the Jets seem to be getting a break in their building from the guys in black and white.

Winnipeg has had to kill penalties an average of just under four times per game while on the road this season, but barely three times a game on home ice. That helps; hug a referee the next time you see one.

But even more important has been the way the Jets have helped themselves this season when they’ve been on the power play at home. Winnipeg is second in the NHL right now with the man advantage at home, clicking at a mind-boggling 32.8 per cent rate that is more than double the 15.8 per cent — 21st in the league — the club has posted on the road this season.

Which is interesting, right? Is it possible the huge disparity between the Jets home and road records has nothing to do with cheering or home cooking or refereeing, but is simply a function of the huge disparity between the effectiveness of their power play at home and on the road?

Or, put another way, is shutting down sniper Patrik Laine, who leads the league in power-play goals with 10, also the key to shutting down the Jets?

Shhhh... hopefully no one will notice.

Look, whatever the reason, the Jets at home this season are the very best part of the Jets this season.

And that would seem to bode very well for their playoff chances going forward. Only one team in the NHL has played fewer games at home to this point than the Jets, who will now play 24 of their final 44 regular-season games here, including an exceedingly rare 10-game home stand that runs from the end of January into late-February.

The road to the playoffs goes through Winnipeg, in other words. With some luck, a big push through the current injuries and some better play on the road, the Jets are hoping the road to a Stanley Cup will travel through the Manitoba capital, too.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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